Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guest Blog: Justin Hill - How being a nerd turned me into a writer

I "met" Justin last year via Twitter and the blog.  Turns out when we did Viking Week, we had somehow managed to miss his very excellent Shieldwall (Mark reviews it here). And as Justin and I started chatting, it transpired that he's a big gaming geek and has the same sort of background as us, and many of our friends.  And many of our friends and acquaintances are also published genre writers and writers-in-waiting.  So I asked Justin to write me an article for MFB about how his gaming and geekiness inspired his writing and interests.

This here, is the article he sent through. The geeklevels blew my mind.

I was there at the beginning - when the boxed set came out, 25 years ago, with a Crimson Fists Space Marine , shooting his gun and swinging an orc head, that was wearing a Prussian style helmet.  Most visions of the future then saw bright lights, shiny space ships and talking computers.  The Warhammer 40K universe was different.  It was Blade Runner meets Apocalypse Now: a Orwellesque future where Big Brothers the best man around.  

I had got into gaming through Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest.  Its obvious to me now that character creation, adventure, confrontation, return, recoup and recover which is essentially what each adventure was is the perfect template for writing.  Writing is the assumption of other personalities; its role playing in its simplest form.   

In my school there was nothing particularly special about playing Dungeons and Dragons: except that it was what the weird kids did after school, in the school library.  Playing for me wasnt enough.  I went a step further and wrote my characters adventures down as stories in their own books.  My first characters were the half elf twins Tallan and Tollon; my favourite was an orphan thief called Bergen, who lost his hand to a poisoned lock, and murdered at close quarters with a kukri; and my last major RuneQuest character was an arbalest wielding hard man named Skarp-Hedin, who went on to be a Orlanth Runelord, fighting the long defeat against the Lunar Empire in the wilds around Griffin Mountain.

Watch Toy Story III and you know theres a time when boys must put away their toys and get into girls and ale.  But I kept my brushes, and kept painting figures, and kept tabs on the hobby from a distance.  But adventure was in my soul, and after university I went to work as a volunteer in the furthest part of the world I could find: rural Shanxi Province, north China, where the wind blows down from the battlefield passes through the Great Wall and the landscape is rich with ruined pagodas and once-rich houses.  It was an adventure of my own.  I rode Mongolian ponies on the steppes; hiked above Tibetan monasteries; stood awed in ancient temples  as incredible and foreign as anything I discovered in the pages of Conan the Barbarian.  And I wrote about these experiences, and then they were published.  And so my dream came true, of becoming a writer. 
There are some stories that happen to you, and some you make up.  My first writing was all about China and Eritrea, East Africa.  And those were very fine books.  They won prizes, and a lot of reviewers said very nice things about them.  They called me a literary writer, which felt like Id been steered through the open front door when all the writers I felt in common with were steered round the back to the Tradesmans Entrance.
I asked my editor the question, one day, What is literary fiction?
His explanation was that literary fiction has convincing characters.  But I think it goes further than that.  Theres a snobbery within the literary establishment that excludes almost all genre fiction from their dwindling club, unless sometimes, its a crime story.  And this is regardless of whether theres convincing characters, or not.  Put an elf or a dwarf or a space-ship in a story, and its immediately sub-standard.   How it must irritate the critics that people insist on reading, watching and encouraging more fantastical stories.  Just look at recent mainstream hits: Game of Thrones, Avatar, Lord of the Rings: people cant get enough of the stuff. 

And no wonder people love these stories.  From myth to legend and religion; Shakespeare to Mallory; Beowulf to Homer to Gawain to Chaucer - stories about the fantastical, the possible and impossible have always been popular.   

Ive read lots of literary and lots of genre fiction, and Ive always thought that genre writers wrote better books than their literary cousins.  Which for me begs the question, what makes a good book? 
Like lots of other writers, my first literary love affair was with Tolkien.  He first inspired me to read, and then to become a writer.  It was Tolkiens ability to create a new world that astonished me.  And when I got to the end of the Lord of the Rings I went back to the beginning, and re-read it for the first time.  And keep reading and learning from it: which is the mark of a real classic. 
Answers to this question Whats a good book are hugely personal.  My answer is this: I like books that grab me, entertain me, and keep me turning the pages.  I like strong characters and big decisions.  I like life and death stories, the question of how to survive the modern world.  I like strange worlds, and the choices it gives the characters therein.  I like big worlds, big challenges, and the things they teach me about my life.  These are found in many great literary books.  Theyre also in genre fiction by the bucket load.  And having ploughed through many literary books, Im sorry to say that its full of writers who can write a beautiful sentence, or even a great paragraph.  But theyre stumped when it comes to writing good stories: the very hardest thing to learn.  
Want a good read?  Give me Tolkien, or Terry Brooks, or Dan Abnett, or Graham McNeill, or George RR Martin, or Julian May, or an old RuneQuest adventure pack any day.  
I wanted to bring the best of genre writing into Shieldwall, so that it was both literary and a page turner. I had previously written a fantasy novel under a cunning pseudonym, and it had given me a test run at a very different kind of writing.  It had also taught me something about how to keep the pace ticking over.  And about writing battle scenes and fighting: that action scenes, he struck here and the other man struck there, tend to be very dull reading. 
So I set about teaching myself how to write better.  How to put the reader into the hack and slash and splatter of battle.  And when I tried to imagine what book I wanted it to be I remembered being a boy and my father giving me The King of Athelney, by Alfred Duggan, about his namesake, Alfred the Great.  That book left such an impression that Duggans Alfred is my Alfred, and I wanted Shieldwall to be the kind of book dads would give their sons, and say.  Want to know about the Battle of Hastings?  Read this.
And for it to kindle within them some of the magic Duggan or Tolkien did for me.  And still do. 
Superb guest blog, Justin! Thanks very much for taking the time to write it. Find Justin's site here, and his blog here.  Shieldwall is out now from


Jenni said...

Brilliant post, reading it made my geeky little heart happy.

Unknown said...

Nice post, I really doubt you were there 25 years ago if you think W40k was in box set (as it was only a book at that time), but nice post anyways...